By Michael Heraghty on April 2nd, 2015
When I was hired to undertake a UX review of The Irish Times, I researched the online news sector for examples of best practices.
The Daily Mail Online, according to its Wikipedia entry, is the biggest English speaking news website on the planet, with almost 200 million monthly visitors – almost five times more than the New York Times.
The Daily Mail still didn’t have a proper website (where you could, you know, read the actual stories) in April 2003. And it didn’t get its new-look version until 2008, when London agency Brand42 were recruited to make it the top UK news site, while enhancing UX, appealing to younger readers, and making better use of imagery.
But Mail Online’s late entry gave it an advantage — the new site went on to dominate the US and other countries, where readers are largely unaware that there is even a print version. This new site was led by the formidable Martin Clarke, the now 49 year-old editor who learned his trade on various newspapers within the group. Clarke, working with Brand42, intuitively figured out what online users around the world wanted, ignoring many of the rules that UX experts preach.
The Mail Online tried optimising its homepage for mobile — and its performance decreased. So they reverted to the desktop homepage.
Users are prepared to pinch, zoom and scroll as a trade-off for lots of stories. They also get the rich desktop layout, with its celebrity sidebar, larger stories given more prominence, etc. If the desktop layout isn’t replicated in a smartphone version, the phone user loses layout information, despite the hassle of scrolling.
I know I’m not the only person who has agonised about site navigation. I’ve been involved in many debates about what sections and sub-sections to include/exclude, what language to use in the labels, how many nested levels is enough/too much, and where to put everything.
On the Mail Online, navigation doesn’t seem ultra important. The main menu was minimal, even outdated looking – just a set of headings with sub-sections, nothing more. I noticed I rarely used this nav bar. Mostly, I clicked on links deep within the page to get to other articles.
Breaking the UX rules? In fact, here the Mail is implementing a little-known UX guideline: In January 2000, in an article entitled Is Navigation Useful?, Jakob Nielsen wrote, “Users look straight at the content and ignore the navigation areas”. Fifteen years on, many still over-estimate the importance of navigation.
Side note: In December, The Irish Times got rid of its “mega menu” and implemented a much simplified main navigation, which I feel was a major improvement.
Story headlines in the Mail Online typically span three lines – these aren’t exactly highway billboards, to borrow Steve Krug’s metaphor.
Clarke and his writers know that, on encountering a story, the user makes an evaluation – do I want to invest my time reading this story, or not? Mail writers use an inverted pyramid. Headlines are CLEVERLY CONSTRUCTED to introduce the story, then set up its outcome – with emphasis on ALLURING WORDS (see what I did there?). Headlines stuffed with important phrases like, say, Kim Kardashian, also help with search engine optimisation.
Sub-headlines reveal the key points in the story, and can run to 150 words or more – the equivalent of a short article on another site. Sub headlines only appear beneath a photo, so the reader has had the first taste, then the photo (second taste), and now the a longer sub-headline (third taste). All these elements entice the reader to click.
The Mail Online publishes between 600 – 700 articles a day. When the reader looks at an article, their eyes are tempted away by a barrage of links, some to related articles, others to popular stories of the day. Links in the so-called sidebar of shame take readers to vacuous “celebrity stories” – words constructed around paparazzi photographs.
Most of the links are accompanied by pictures, and have the alluring copy described above. Readers of Mail Online that I spoke to confessed that they would go to the site to read a single story, and end up reading several. Clicking the links is addictive. No wonder that Clarke has described what he does as “Crack Journalism”.
The Mail Online has created a guilty pleasure – and has spawned many imitators.
Pages on the the Mail Online seem to go on forever. As Brand42 says in its Mail Online case study (PDF), this is by design intent:
We recognised and utilized the fact that the webpage does not conform to web media rules, e.g. the ‘above the fold’ myth of prime positioning. Some pages not scroll down for a pixel-equivalent of several metres.
While users can’t actually comment without logging in, all users can immediately upvote (green arrow) or downvote (red arrow) existing comments. This removes friction and creates a sense of participation.
Comments on the vast majority of articles are not moderated – the mob truly rules. Some of the comments are humorous; most are filled with righteous indignation. The Mail plays to all of this – readers can skip straight to the comments, bypassing the articles – “I’m only here for the comments!” has become an in-joke in that section.
To design something good, you’ve got to follow the rules. But to design something great, you’ve got to break the rules. Or as the advertising genius Paul Arden put it:
If you always make the right decision, the safe decision, the one most people make, you will be the same as everyone else.